at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ

September 22

The recent season-opening concert of the Chicago String Ensemble featured 20th-century masterpieces from England under the banner “Best of Britain.” Gustav Holst’s Saint Paul’s Suite, the first selection on the program, is a four-movement work for string orchestra that makes considerable use of British folk tunes for its thematic material; a Renaissance jig is featured in the opening movement and a fugue finale juxtaposes “Greensleeves” and the “Dargason” dance. This material is transformed in a very lush Romantic way, and makes the suite a wonderful string-showcase piece.

As such, it was in good hands with CSE music director Alan Heatherington, who was able to elicit a beautiful, full, rich sound from his mere 22 players. The ensembling was tight, the phrasing very musical, and the piece’s inner and outer structure were meticulously revealed. Heatherington has a wonderful flare for form, for building tension and climaxes. His tempi were convincing, his leadership stable. It is rare to hear such glorious string tone in Chicago, but Heatherington pulled it off with great style–and with much younger and more supple players than typically play in the Lyric Opera or Chicago Symphony orchestras. Concertmaster Virginia Graham played a low violin solo in the third movement so elegantly it was virtually cellolike. My only problems with this reading were that the second movement was heavy-handed and the finale a tad slower and less lively than I would have liked. Balancing, too, became an issue in the finale, as the “Greensleeves” melody in the lower strings did not cut through the rest of the orchestra enough. Even so, the voices were well layered and beautifully executed.

I was expecting Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings to have some nice moments, if for no other reason than that CSO principal horn Dale Clevenger would be tooting away, but I wasn’t expecting much from tenor Kurt Hansen, whose singing usually leaves me pretty cold. Much to my surprise, it was Hansen who shone and Clevenger who left me cold. Clevenger constantly overpowered Hansen and the string sonority. His high notes–particularly in the natural-horn prelude and postlude–cracked, and while his large sound was as impressive as always, there was very little musicality to it. Perhaps Heatherington was too shy to call Clevenger on this (assuming Clevenger even came to a rehearsal), but someone should have told him this is a contemplative piece, not the walls of Jericho.

Hansen seems far more suited to this style of singing than the early music he usually struggles through in groups such as Music of the Baroque. His voice is gravelly, but rich in color and technique, at least for this work. He was, not surprisingly, difficult to understand with all the horn noise going on, but his text painting and depth of interpretation were superb (the full English text was generously provided in the program). The only piece that gave him trouble was the “Hymn,” which contained some runs that he was unable to deliver cleanly.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis has become a modern string classic and justifiably so. Based on one of the 16th-century hymn tunes discovered by Vaughan Williams while he was editing a new Anglican hymnal, the piece has an almost magical quality when played by the right orchestra and in the proper acoustical setting. The CSE and Saint Paul’s Church provided both, and the work was beautifully played with an impressively lush sound that was slowed down so that it could reverberate properly across the church. Heatherington brought out the ethereal nature of the piece, although the limits of the group’s virtuosity were revealed when they strained in the upper register. The group is weak in its ability to sustain its sound during long cadences and fermatas, but hopefully that will improve in time.

In just about any survey of British works there is bound to be a throwaway piece, and in this concert it was John Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale. After the ensemble was rearranged so that the violins were to each side and the cellos and basses in the middle, this three-movement piece–with its seemingly endless series of repetitious, ponderous sequences–began. The piece is typical of much of the dreadfully unimaginative music that came from 20th-century Britain. Even Heatherington couldn’t save it.


at the Cathedral of Saint James

September 29

Erich Leinsdorf once joked that if a nap seems like a good idea during Vivaldi, you can nod in and out, and you won’t really miss anything. But with Bach, he said, every note, every phrase is of such enormous importance that even a short nap would mean missing a great deal. That assessment was emphatically demonstrated, in Basically Bach’s season opener, the group’s first all-instrumental concert.

It is difficult to understand the enormous popularity of the four Vivaldi violin concerti that open his concerto series “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.” The Four Seasons, each “season” consisting of three short contrasting movements, is so shamelessly programmatic that Vivaldi composed lame poetry to indicate exactly which seasonal episodes are depicted in the music. The music is certainly not terribly interesting, although it is so familiar that a distanced perspective is virtually impossible. Perhaps its continuing grip has to do with the fact that the piece was rediscovered during the Romantic era, when people were obsessed with programmatic associations in music. Even though Romantic program music and Baroque program music exist in different sonic solar systems, the fact that listeners had instructions as to what they should listen for–unlike the more abstract, at least by 19th-century aesthetics, art of Bach or Handel–may have made all the difference. In any case, the piece endures–in the concert hall, in film sound tracks, even in salad-dressing commercials.

Like most Italian music, the work depends on effects and virtuosity rather than substance and form. Just as the effectiveness of Puccini is directly proportionate to the quality of singers performing it, The Four Seasons will rise or fall depending on what a violin soloist is able to bring to it. In town for the job was Basically Bach’s concertmaster Nancy Wilson, a superb section leader with the group, whose solo bits have always been first-rate. Unfortunately, the work brought her to the limits of her own technique, and there were some grisly moments. As long as things weren’t moving along too fast, she was able to evoke great subtlety and color. But when things sped up, her melodic lines broke down, often sliding into a scratchy sound and even occasional mouse squeaks. Intonation and pitch were also problems in the upper-register sections of the faster passages. Wilson is a splendid section leader, but a soloist of higher caliber needs to be brought in if Basically Bach wants to be taken seriously as an instrumental group.

Wilson’s absence as section leader was noticeable in that the answering strings were often flabby and garbled. It also seemed that conductor Daniel V. Robinson had little idea what to do with the piece, so there was little dynamic contrast. While he often rushed, the ensemble paid little attention to him.

In his four orchestral suites, originally labeled overtures, Bach was reworking a French tradition that goes back to Jean-Baptiste Lully and the court of Louis XIV: an arrangement of a suite of individual dance pieces. The Suite no. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067, is the most delicate of the four. It features the transverse flute in a solo role, which was beautifully played by Sandra Miller, though so delicately that it was often inaudible. Robinson was holding back the strings, but the problem was simply that there were too many players. The same 15-member orchestra that was so appropriate for the Vivaldi overpowered this piece, which can be very effective played as it probably was originally performed by Bach–by a player or two per part.

Yet Bach fared much better than Vivaldi, although again, Robinson was often rushing while the ensemble lagged behind him. Even so, he did a stylish job, and the inner structure of each of the movements, was clearly discernible.

The biggest problem came from the bizarre decision to split the work in half and present the parts between the Vivaldi seasons. Apparently the purpose was to ensure maximum variety over the evening. But while the Vivaldi is a series of separate concerti that were not intended to be heard all together in the first place, the Bach was intended as a unit. His overall architecture was completely and needlessly obliterated.